In Blackfoot, Idaho, the lowly spud is no small potatoes.
Located in the old Oregon Short Line Railroad Depot, built circa 1913, the Idaho Potato Exposition is more than a shrine to Solanum tuberosum; it's also the focal point of Bingham County, which boasts the world's most intensive production of potatoes—100 million hundredweight sacks per year.
Although the seed stock for potatoes originated in the Andes mountains of Peru about 200 B.C., the modern potato, as both a cash crop and a concept, is indisputably and inextricably an Idaho invention. Or so the expo would have us believe. But the museum's collection of potato-related paraphernalia makes all the propaganda palatable.
The expo sprouted to life in 1990 when the Citizens for a Positive Image of Blackfoot, Idaho, decided to let all who may pass near know that the town is the epicenter of the potato industry.
Though on the surface the subject of potatoes might seem dry as dirt, the museum puts a spin on spuds that's decidedly whimsical and occasionally wacky. For instance, a newspaper columnist once remarked that Marilyn Monroe would look good in a potato sack. She responded by posing in one. As the brassy photos convey, Monroe sumptuously explored the limits of burlap. If you prefer something a little more formal, let your eye wander over to the burlap tuxedo hanging in all its coarse-stitched splendor, or the intricately and garishly decorated potato sack gown worn back in 1994 by rodeo queen Carol Young.
The expo boasts the world's largest potato chip, a 25-inch monster made for Pringles. Although this mega-chip remains preserved behind glass, it's hard to resist conjuring up the image of a bathtub full of clam dip on the side.
The museum has also unearthed some spud lore, piling the plate high with such pommes frites as: the fact that both chili peppers and petunias are relatives of the potato; that Thomas Jefferson was the first to serve french fries at the White House (John Adams accused him of "putting on airs" by serving such nouveau cuisine); and that potatoes are used in the making of blood plasma and artificial crab. On the sociopolitical front, there's this tidbit: Back in 1988, Vice President Dan Quayle made headlines after instructing a student during a spelling bee that the word "potato" should have an "e" on the end. Later while visiting Blackfoot, Quayle good-naturedly autographed a spud for the museum.
Of course, no serious spud fest would be complete without a bow to Mr. Potato Head. Naturally, the museum display is biased toward the early version of the toy, when it used an actual potato for the body. This was before Hasbro went all plastic and then, egads, electronic, touting every digital permutation from Darth Tater to Picasso Potato Head.
If you ever have occasion to travel between Pocatello and Idaho Falls, plan on sidetracking to Blackfoot. After all, the notion of skipping the Potato Expo seems, well, half-baked. The Idaho Potato Expo is open daily from May 1 to Sept. 30. For more information, call (800) 785-2517 or go to www.ida.net/users/potatoexpo .
Photos by Troy Maben/Steve Bly Photography
This article was first published in July 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.